Ursula K. Le Guin, my hero, died on a Monday. On the Wednesday that preceded her passing, only five days before her death, I sent her the only piece of fan mail I’ve ever written. In it, I struggled to contain and express the boundless praise and thanks due to a woman who, despite our never meeting or interacting in any way, was and is one of the chief figures of my life. Though I know that it is almost impossible that Ms. Le Guin received, let alone read, my letter before her passing, I am glad to have sent it. Through her I learned that to write words is to create magic and so even if she never read my thanks, they are out there now, in the world, their spell of gratitude cast in the act of writing. That will have to be enough.
Before I knew that I wanted to write, my passion was music. It is fitting then, that I was introduced to Ms. Le Guin, unquestionably my favorite author, by the music of Gatsbys American Dream, unquestionably my favorite band. I found them both, Gatsbys and Le Guin, at a crucial stage in my life; as an adolescent I may have discovered my personhood through Third Eye Blind and The Lord of the Rings but in my burgeoning adulthood I discovered purpose – that I had meaningful control over who I was and who I could be – through Gatsbys American Dream and Ursula K. Le Guin. In my mind they are bound together, those two, the author and the band, and for many years now I have lived in the tangle of their connection.
My love for Le Guin’s work was immediate – from the opening lines of A Wizard of Earthsea I was spellbound – but it would be years before I felt the full impact of her work. A year or two after reading the Earthsea Cycle, I read The Left Hand of Darkness when I recognized Le Guin’s name among the shelves I was stocking during my part-time job at a bookstore. Again I found myself drawn into one of her worlds, captured by the truths that lie in fiction. In the years that followed I read my Le Guin books again and again, her wisdom and insight helping me to understand myself and my world, guiding me as my own writing ability began to solidify from soft cartilage to solid bone. She became the English professor I had never had, her writings the syllabus for the life I was shaping.
My god, I’m going to miss her.
Eventually Caitlin and I moved to the Oregon coast, a destination chosen in part because it was as close as I could come to living in one of Le Guin’s worlds. The mountains that loomed up behind our house were heavily forested, the coast that ran parallel to that range was scored by cliffs and the cold ocean waters were dotted with rocky outcroppings that might have been the remnants of some long-forgotten archipelago. It was Roke, it was Klatsand. It was, quite honestly, magical. On weekends we’d drive over the mountains and visit Powell’s – the bookstore that Le Guin herself frequented – or maybe we’d ignore the city and instead head up the coast to Cannon Beach where Le Guin owned a summer home. Across those years in the west, I always kept an eye out for my hero but, whether in the Gold Room or at Haystack Rock, I never saw her in person. Instead I delved deeper and deeper into her writings, following wherever she lead.
During those Powell’s visits I filled out my Le Guin collection until I came to own nearly every book she’d ever written. Every few months I’d read or reread one of them, apportioning her massive catalog over time rather than sprinting through it, savoring her words and the wisdom they held, extending the window of opportunity in which I could read a Le Guin book for the first time. Only a week before her passing did I finish Always Coming Home and I’m still working my way through the writing exercises in Steering the Craft. Dancing at the Edge of the World remains on my shelf, unread. Someday I’ll finish those latter two, as well as the few others I’ve not yet read, and I’ll lose her once more as I cross that threshold past which I will never again read anything new by Ursula K. Le Guin.
She will never be truly gone for me, of course. Those who impact us never truly leave us and, as all artists hope to, she will live on through her art which is as rich and potent now as it has ever been. But as I read through The Farthest Shore after hearing the news of her death, I couldn’t help but feel that the oft-read story resonated differently now than it had in the past. Le Guin’s prose remains sharp and brilliant but the resonance was different this time because, as I struck up against her words, I myself was different, colored now by my grief.
Roughly a third of the way through The Farthest Shore, the reader meets a woman, once a great talent, whose power has ended, whose time has come prematurely. The woman, written by Le Guin nearly half a century ago, is no more a stand-in for Le Guin than Prince Arren is a stand-in for me individually, and yet, as I read the story now, I can’t help but see Le Guin herself in the words she once wrote. “She was a woman of power,” the story goes. “A woman of art and skill, using her craft for the making of the beautiful, a proud woman and honorable.”
Yes, I think. Truly, she was.